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Op-Ed | It's Time to Tackle the Working Conditions of Women

In a harsh garment industry, ameliorating the working conditions of women can drive both social impact and greater competitiveness, argues Dr. Maximilian Martin.
Women in a garment factory in China | Source: Shutterstock
  • Maximilian Martin

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — For millions of women, fashion can be a means of self-expression, a distraction, a luxury — or a way to make a living. Women are critical to the global fashion industry along the entire value chain. As well as occupying some of the industry's top leadership positions, they also constitute the overwhelming majority of workers that power the world's multitrillion-dollar textiles, apparel and luxury goods industry on which fashion depends. In fact, in most developing countries producing fashion and apparel for export, 80 percent of the workforce is comprised of women.

But in spite of their important economic contribution, in most garment factories in emerging markets, women are easy targets for exploitation and discrimination and find themselves at a comparative disadvantage in terms of pay, working conditions and the possibilities of promotion. In Bangladesh, for example, women workers in the textile and garment industry earn 25 percent less than men for the same job. What’s more, their specific needs remain widely disregarded. Reliable information about health-related rights such as maternity leave, child-care facilities and nursing breaks is barely available.

Make no mistake, the textile and garment industry has been a major motor of economic advancement and formal employment ever since it kicked off the Industrial Revolution, making a notable contribution to women’s empowerment and economic independence in the process. Indeed, women’s employment in the industry has helped to narrow the gender gap in many spheres. But, today, for women, the harsh realities of the workplace still fail to match the beauty of the products they manufacture. The glamorous marketing of fashion and the reality of garment manufacturing could hardly offer a more brutal contrast.

The time has come for the fashion industry to tackle the working conditions of women as part of a holistic approach to upgrading apparel supply chains across the board. This is not a utopian ambition. Redesigning production, improving infrastructure and providing both workers and management with proper training in a way that ameliorates conditions and addresses gender issues can yield both social impact and competitiveness dividends.

In fact, tackling the poor working conditions of women is one of the key levers for breaking out of the prevailing cycle of suboptimal factory productivity, high absenteeism, high staff turnover, the Damocles sword of strikes, and repression. Much of this requires an attitude change rather than rocket science. For example, making an effort to understand worker needs and preferences and allowing for leaves or planned holidays can help reduce worker turnover by 33 percent and absenteeism by 28 percent. Other levers of progress are important infrastructural upgrades to garment factories, including modifications to reduce indoor heat, a great source of discomfort for workers located in the tropics, through smart roofs and low-heat lighting. Also critical are access to education and training for female workers, taking action against harassment at the workplace, and providing access to health facilities — as well as justice so that complaints can be systemically addressed.

Such measures may seem insignificant, but their positive impact can be disproportionate. For example, tackling widespread anaemia amongst women garment workers through education could help improve women’s wellbeing and raise productivity.

Some are already leading the charge. With the help of the International Finance Corporation, a Bangladeshi knitted garment manufacturing and exporting conglomerate called DBL Group is undertaking an ambitious $35 million project to boost its competitiveness by upgrading its manufacturing and leveraging labour as an asset. As part of the initiative, DBL has not only introduced advanced and environmentally friendly technologies to its factories, but also trained certain workers both as medics and fire wardens in the case of emergency. All factory workers are offered packages consisting of medical and educational benefits, as well as pay. This is good news for women working at DBL Group. But the next step is to drive this kind of progress on a broader, industry-wide front.

Leaders in the fashion industry are in a position to influence and drive the change process. In 2009, Tory Burch, the designer and entrepreneur whose clothing and accessories enjoy wide appeal, teamed up with Accion USA, a micro-lending and microfinance organisation, to help low- and middle-income women around the United States to start and grow small businesses. It is now time to take this kind of ambition to drive real improvements in the lives of women into the core business of global apparel manufacturing itself.

Maximilian Martin, Ph.D. is the founder and global managing director of Impact Economy, an impact investment and innovation firm based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the author of the report Creating Sustainable Apparel Value Chains.

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